GOING OFF ALARMING THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY VOLUME 2 BY DANNY BAKER – REVIEW

Published October 10, 2014 by tootingtrumpet

DBVolume 2 picks up where Volume 1 stopped… except that it doesn’t really. More so than Going To Sea In A Sieve (reviewed here) Alarming starts out of synch (with a 24 carat gold story that should have been in Sieve) and continues with tales only loosely related to a conventional temporal sequence. It’s more a scrapbook with some of the pages missing and some of the pages a little out of order – but it’s no less enjoyable for it!

There are some wonderful yarns: getting shot, twice; never quite getting to award shows in quite the right gear; Twizzle, the family dog, and his vendetta with the scrapyard mutt over the fence; and many, many more about Spud, DB’s hero, father, muse. There’s more – plenty more and the temptation to throw in a few spoilers here is almost overpowering!

But that is exactly what one would expect from all those radio shows that mine the seemingly inexhaustible seam of “things that have happened to me”. The tales transfer from the mic to the page with no loss of comic timing and with the same curious combination of self-deprecation and glee at being the centre of attention one more time. This is Danny the Showman, Danny the Turn, Danny the Holder of Court – the Danny that many consider a national treasure (sorry, but that is the mot juste) and some find insufferable.

But for all the parading of his working class cultural credentials (and they do ring true – my brother was also shot for a laugh and also laughed it off) and his Floyd Mayweatherly approach to money, the book hints at something deeper, something that he himself has often remarked that comics should avoid, as it’s much harder to make people laugh than to make them cry, or rise in anger, or even just think. When DB does serious, it’s not like Mike Yarwood singing, “And this is me,” so provoking every viewer to switch over. DB is very good at serious.

He didn’t like being called a “Professional Cockney” reasoning, with some justification, that this was merely a veiling of a “Cockney” who should know his place amongst the Oxbridge media types. But how did that passive aggression towards him manifest itself? How was he patronised? Who did it? DB is not really one to name names or dish the dirt – like writing about his brother’s untimely death, that wouldn’t sit with the book’s overarching motif of the hat on the side of the head, luck just turning up to sort things out, life consisting of one sunny day after another. So we don’t really find out.

The relentless optimistic timbre does make the occasional cymbal clash resonate though. There’s a rant (like some of his more celebrated radio meltdowns, it’s directed at faceless managers whose job it is to impose order on what should be chaotic) that underlines his firm ideas about what is valuable in life and what isn’t. There is a real warmth evident in his feelings towards Paul Gascoigne (and a rare moment of regret at the friendship’s fading) and plenty that suggests how the inevitably “troubled” ex-footballer connected to his kind – and some pranks that makes Gazza sound like a Bullingdon Boy had he gone to Eton and not Heathfield Senior High, Gateshead. An acid account of journalistic manipulation of an interview also bares teeth that are otherwise reserved for smiling at life’s crazy coincidences – meeting The Queen in Deptford anyone?

The pages roar by, the laughs keep coming – yes, I lolled on the Tube and two or three times forced my son to read a few pages that were just too funny to miss – but there’s another, more balanced book buried inside these pages with many tales left out (still no giant firework in the LWT lift, my favourite of the many, many stories he has told on the radio). So, before we get to Volume 3 and the cancer, let’s have something that is not more serious – that would be the wrong word – but something that gets beyond the overdeveloped Baker funnybone.

There is a precedent and it comes from one of his heroes – PG Wodehouse. The greatest comic novelist wrote about serious matters in his Berlin Broadcasts.  Hopelessly misjudged though they were, the transcripts balance PGW’s almost pathological need to entertain with a hard-edged account of what it was like to be a POW and why those left at home should not think that their incarcerated loved ones were in agony 24 hours a day (at least not those banged up with PGW). Put to happier purpose, DB’s gift for entertainment could tell us a lot about where the working class of England’s big cities have gone and why so many are disconnected from politics and culture.

That might never come fully formed, but it’s there hidden, somewhere between the cracks of this too-soon-finished rattle through some of the jests and japes of the Daz Doorstep Challenge Man (and so much more).

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis – reviewed

Published August 25, 2014 by tootingtrumpet

photo posted on post-gazette.comTwenty-five years or so ago, ordering a beer in a Prague cafe, my bad German attracted the attention of the only other English speaker in town, an American, and we got talking. I wasn’t intending a trip to Poland, that slab of plain so unfortunately flung between Germany and Russia, because I had no visa, the London Embassy needing more time and money than I had found convenient. But, following the American’s directions to an upstairs office nearby, ten dollars bought me the entry documentation and I was off on the sleeper to Warsaw and on to Krakow.

Two days later, an old train rattled over the lines left unbombed to Auschwitz. There was no sense of ghoulish tourism then, barely a tourist in those rickety carriages, so I was relieved to fall in with a couple of Dutch guys with whom I shared beers and jokes, imagining the Olympic Games staged like an early round of Miss World in traditional national dress (they didn’t fancy their chances in the 100 meters – the clogs you see). We reached the small rural railway station in laddish good spirits and a handful of us disembarked, the air still, the clouds pushing down a little, the station quiet. There was a guide and we listened respectfully to her introduction as we walked towards the gates, wondering whether they were Soviet impostors or if they had somehow survived all, all… that. The path’s gravel crunched under our sandals reminding us that we had some dominion over this awful space, but, as we entered the nearest building, words wouldn’t form in our mouths and and we could hear only our guide’s soft voice as we read the multilingual labels on the display cases of false teeth, walking canes, children’s shoes. Soon she joined our silence and nothing was said – nothing could be said.

We bore witness to the blocks in which men, women and children were invited to shower in rooms with floors that had no gullies, no drains, no water – but we had long since been overpowered by the scale of the camps, the banality of its evil, the collapse of the comfortingly abstract into something terribly tangible. We sat on the steps of, what, some building or other and still said nothing. Or rather, still could say nothing. Words, language, thoughts even had run out – insufficient to do the job they had done for 25 years or so. One of us eventually broke the stillness and we walked, heads bowed a little, back to the railway station to catch the return train. That evening, we played pool, sank a few very cheap beers and tried to chat up the local girls, but our hearts weren’t in it. We made our farewells and the Dutch lads headed towards Berlin, while I made for Budapest. 

Weaving in and out of The Zone of Influence, Martin Amis’s novel set in a thinly disguised Auschwitz, is the same problem I had – what can language do when set against this vast depravity? Amis feels compelled to write about the Camp, but feels equally compelled to acknowledge that the subject exhausts language, exhausts understanding, exhausts explanation – indeed, exhausts even the question of whether it is explicable at all. What emerges is an unsatisfactory, disgusting book that it also moving and thrilling, worthy of its sources (including, read halfway between my first and now my third “visit” to Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s heartbreaking If This Is A Man).    

Amis gives us three narrators, all with familiar, if re-energised, Amisian voices, their accounts overlaying each other, as events are described by each of them in turn. 

Golo Thomsen is the nephew of Martin Bormann, an photofit Aryan if not quite a photofit Nazi, who uses his connections to cover the fact that his ardour is more directed towards the Fatherland’s big, busty Mädchen than the Fatherland’s thousand year destiny. Thomsen is educated, an intellectual and a cynical exploiter of what comes across his path – until his eye falls upon Hannah Doll, the kind of woman who looks like she might, just might, serve foaming steins of bier in a keller, but is actually the apparently demure, much younger wife of Paul Doll, the Camp Kommandant. 

Doll is the second narrator and a classic Amisian man: small (in every sense); unintentionally funny; drunk on power. His voice drives the narrative forward simultaneously revealing the horrors he supervises mediated through euphemism and a 180 degree skewed perspective, so twisted that even a fanatical dullard like Doll has cause to question. He gets most, if not quite all, of those signature Amis sentences that fizz off the page provoking a guilty laugh, the author catching you again in that smartarse’s net he has used since The Rachel Papers. How about (Doll at an opera) – “It wasn’t like the last occasion, when I became gradually immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience”. BANG! There’s more, a lot more, like that – unspeakable crimes spoken of in the argot of the put-upon middle manager.

The third voice is that of Szmul, a Polish Jew in charge of the processing and disposal of thousands of dead bodies. Intelligent and sensitive, these two traits serve both to keep him alive, as he continually makes himself too valuable to kill, and to torture his soul, as he wrestles with his guilt at not fighting back and his desire to ensure that his story is told. His compromises reach their inevitable endpoint when he sees one of his teenage son’s childhood friends heading for the shower block and intervenes to call in “a favour”.

Other characters, factual and fictional, turn up in the narratives, as the War slides away from German control after Stalingrad, but the Camp is the fixed point of the novel, a crushing, cruel, incomprehensible site of the application of industrial logic to psychotic ends. In an Afterword, the author writes of the impossibility of identifying why the Holocaust was not just prosecuted, but prosecuted with such fervour, to the very end, the Camp lasting longer than the Reich itself, smashed and overrun, its demise long expected, not least by its wretched architects.

By the last page, Amis, like me and the Dutch lads a quarter century gone, has run out of language, explored all the places words can go, exhausted all the accounts of the unaccountable. He has left behind a book that jars the reader with its appalling humour and its sickening scenes and reminds us – not least because German, the language in which the Final Solution was framed, sits so close, so uncomfortably close, to English, the means by which we, a we that has unimaginable military and industrial power at our disposal, explains and manages the world. The Camps may be bounded by the iconography, the politics and the social conditions of Europe in the first half of the 20th century – but not the men. Thomsen, Doll and Szmul walk amongst us – they always have and they always will.

Slaying The Badger by Richard Moore – revisited and reviewed

Published August 20, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
The greatest kit in sports history

The greatest kit in sports history

Bernard Hinault was The Patron of the peloton, the four-time winner, the force of nature – in the unwritten, but understood and fiercely enforced rules of the Tour de France, that gave him rights, rights he was very happy to exercise. In 1985, he had used this throwback to a version of droit de seigneur (and his team leadership, though that seemed almost incidental) to stifle the opportunity of his young team mate, Greg LeMond, to ride for the maillot jaune. Though injured and riding as much on reputation and that ferocious will as physical power, Hinault’s record equalling fifth jersey was secured in Paris: in return, LeMond secured a promise (well, a sort of promise) that Hinault would ride for him come 1986.

Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger is the story of that unforgettable Tour, a story that holds its mysteries to this day. It speaks of a race that is now gone forever – not just because it was written prior to Lance Armstrong’s confession that sliced cycling history into a “Before and After”, but also because the 1986 Tour is so very French, the domain of radio-free riders grabbing information and instructions on the fly and still rooted in cycling’s long gone culture of riding hard and playing hard. There are no marginal gains here, no diet sheets and no hypodermics either..

The book sets up – aided by long and (mainly) frank interviews with its key personalities – the men whose actions decide the 1986 Tour. What seemed at the time like madness (I watched the nightly Channel 4’s coverage avidly, bewitched by even bit-part players like the great Colombian climber, the wildly attacking Lucho Herrera, never mind the two main men) becomes, if not quite explained, then certainly explicable, as a set of characters who surely could have been invented by Anton Chekhov, emerge to duel in the sun.

Hinault’s force of will is illustrated with the already legendary deeds of winning in the snow of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the mud of Paris-Roubaix; in his ascent from a ravine into which he and bike had tumbled, rising to use the spare machine to win 1977’s Criterium du Dauphine Libere; in his leadership of a riders’ strike in his first Tour and his willingness, even today, to take the direct physical action French farmers such as he employ to deal with those invading their space. Though a brawler in both the metaphorical and literal senses, Hinault emerges as a man who knows his obligations as much as his rights, not so much a monster as a man who could be monstrous when required.

LeMond is, of course, his opposite. Prone to self-doubt, American and so, so keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, only his extraordinary physical attributes give him anything in common with the Hero of France. Hinault knew that LeMond would win the Tour – as proud a champion as he would only assert that he could handle LeMond so forcefully, so frequently if he felt it needed to be said – but he didn’t want him to win in 1985 and, when the combat went mano-a-mano in 1986, he didn’t really want him to win then either.

Managing these two most alpha of alpha males in the same team was Dr Paul Kochli, a technocrat who logged riders’ data on 80s era computers and preferred to focus on the team rather than the rider – it was not a recipe for harmony at La Vie Claire. Behind him lurked a man for whom harmony was anathema and victory was expected, the larger than life team owner, Bernard Tapie – industrialist, singer, jailbird. Tapie loved the limelight and the Hinault-LeMond saga gave him plenty of that.

1986’s Tour was a combustible mix and it caught fire when Hinault decided to “stir things up” with a series of random attacks to which his team-mate LeMond was not privy (nor was the anglophone half of La Vie Clair). Was Hinault reneging on his promise of a year earlier? Was it really ever made? Was he riding to reduce the field to himself and LeMond to ensure a La Vie Claire man on the top step of the podium supported by another just one rung down? Or did he glimpse a sixth Tour and immortality with just a Yankee kid in the way?

As the book follows the stages of 1986’s Tour, Hinault’s mind games get to LeMond and they get to the reader too. Is Hinault bold and brave, tilting one last time at one of sport’s greatest prizes with the panache of his youth? Or is he cruelly playing every card in his hand against a team-mate to whom he owes, at the very least, a moral obligation to support? In an astute afterword, David Millar’s nuanced interpretation rings most true – but we’ll never really know.

It’s no surprise to learn that the book has been adapted into one of ESPN’s series of sports documentaries as it’s a page-turner full of suspense, humour and no little pathos. It’s also a reminder of why my generation fell in love with the sport, despite its flaws which were to metastasise in the two decades to follow into the obscenity of Armstrong’s bullying, lies and the culture that supported them. Richard Moore’s research, his love of the race and his respect for its riders rekindled memories undimmed by the passage of time (that iconic La Vie Claire jersey hardly fades does it) but also the joy of discovering a sport with so vast a canvas, a sport that so brutally revealed human character and, yes, a sport that was such fun to watch. Hinault may have stirred the race, but the Tour stirred our souls.

The Chris Mullin Diaries

Published January 15, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
TB and CM

The man behind The Man

“Tomorrow is another day” did not just give comfort to Scarlett O’Hara – the phrase pretty much defines the experience of reading diaries. It often comes to mind if slightly bogged down with accounts of a (then) crucial Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings (for example). So the best political diaries have the pace that comes from the extraordinary day-to-day variety of a pol’s life and the presentation of history’s ever unfolding first draft, warts and all, from a ringside seat. Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are all testosterone-fuelled execution (of policies and enemies); Tony Benn’s favour an extraordinary mix of high political ideas with personal and family introspection; Gyles Brandreth’s go for the laughter in the dark, as John Major’s decency is smashed by his party’s deathwish.

Chris Mullin’s Diaries (published in three volumes, but very much a continuous narrative) are none of those things – not as power-soaked, not as personal, not as funny – but those absences allow much more to bleed through the text and the details accrue. The diaries start when the man Mullin calls The Man wins the leadership of the Labour Party and with it, becomes heir apparent to 10 Downing Street’s keys. Pretty soon, the Blair charm is radiating everywhere, not least on the former leftwing journalist and campaigner and MP for Sunderland South. He doesn’t quite fall in love like a 13 year-old does with Harry Styles, but, well, that’s near enough.

The personal connection animates much of Mullin’s work – something of a surprise in a politician with such a strong leftish history, if a continually fading belief in The Left as a coherent ideological construct. Though his open-mindedness tortures him on Iraq and many other issues as he tries to plot the route his conscience is dimly revealing, it allows him to form and discard opinions with entertaining haste. Sometimes The Man can do no wrong; and sometimes no right; sometimes John Prescott is a tongue-tied bully; and sometimes an inspiring and caring boss; sometimes Mullin yearns for high office and sometimes he dreads it. In other words, he’s a lot like the rest of us.

Along the way, there are fascinating insights into how high stakes politics is played – the whips as ever, scheming, plotting, paybacking. There are beautiful accounts of trips to Africa, with the edge of corruption, poverty and war insisting in from the margins, polluting paradise. There are friendships that endure – Jack Straw weaves in and out of the text, a decent and loyal man, and other unlikely buddies from across the House in the persons of Tory grandees Nick Soames and George Young. Even a boyish David Cameron wins praise in the far off days when he talked sense about drugs policy.

Mullin agonises most about making a difference: to the asylum seekers who arrive in his office shaking with fear at the prospect of deportation to a failed state; to the government departments run by the Sir Humphries for the Sir Humphries; and to his own family, growing up as the months fly by. If he wasn’t given the chance to do all the right things, he (mainly) did the right things when he could and left us these diaries as a wonderful insight into why the right things (and the wrong things) happened.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – Purple Noon (Plein Soleil)

Published November 16, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

René Clément’s 1960 movie is a beautiful thing. It has Italian locations – in the deep South too; astonishing scenes filmed on a boat that would not be out of place in one of Wernher Herzog’s more ambitious (ie mad) productions; and a sun every bit as hard and uncompromising as its original title suggests. And it has one of those endless stream of European actresses of that time who can just ooze erotic charge out of the screen, in this case singer-actor Marie Laforet. And, topping the lot, in his breakthrough role, only Alain Delon.

Don't listen to him!

Don’t listen to him!

Of course, he plays Tom Ripley, one of the twentieth century’s great literary creations, and one notoriously tricky to capture on film. Matt Damon wasn’t much good in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley and John Malkovich scarcely better in 2002’s Ripley’s Game. Delon, eyes darting and staring as befits his situation, gets much closer to Patricia Highsmith’s asexual, amoral antihero, even with the terrible dubbing. There’s Ripley’s magnetism, his look that sees through the merely clever (especially through the merely clever) and his almost wilful courting of danger, the better to give himself the chance to thumb it in the eye and walk away smirking. Delon is at his best when the least active in any scene, the watcher and learner, soon to be the manipulator.

Mme Laforet may be introduced as little more than very upmarket eye candy, but she shows how Marge falls not just for Ripley’s looks (who wouldn’t!) but also for his Dorian Gray approach to his evil. She never says that she knows, but we know that she knows – and, once in Ripley’s grip (metaphorically and literally) she doesn’t care. It’s a very accomplished performance for a woman barely out of her teens.

There is one flaw in a near flawless film. Ms Highsmith would never have scripted an ending like that – and said so having praised much of the rest of the movie. Nor would Ripley, a consummate professional in his derring deeds, ever be so sloppy. It’s the only false note, but it’s a real clanger.

I had not heard of this movie until my attention was drawn to it by a below the line comment on a Guardian click-gathering list piece – which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth reading BTL stuff even these days. There’s an excellent print on a Russian website (click here). Better still, read The Talented Mr Ripley, on which the film is closely based – it’s the kind of book that you envy those who are yet to read it, as so much pleasure lies before them. And now they can picture M. Delon in their mind’s eye as Ripley, well, it’s even more of a treat.

A Blaze Of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn – Review

Published November 5, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

TBI met Tony Benn once. Though it feels like I met him thousands of times – through the famous diaries, the ninth and final volume of which is somewhat different to those that have gone before. No longer at the heart of politics, no longer driven past any intimation of fatigue by the fierce fire of his convictions, no longer a politician, the political has given way to the personal. This is still a diary of ideas but, contrary to an entry in which he deplores his self-obsession, this is very much a diary about friends and family.

The political principles still weave through the text: socialism; the commitment to democracy as the only means to organise life; the support for the Palestinian cause; the relentless opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the trust in trades unions. Criticism of Benn as a champagne socialist is unfair and trite, though one can’t help thinking of the line about enjoying one’s grandchildren more than one’s children (because you can get away from them when it becomes too much). Benn’s sentimental vision of the working class is (in the eyes of this writer, who has observed it up close and personal) underpinned by the townhouse in Holland Park Avenue, the Palace of Westminster and some very non-working class friends. I’m left with the impression that he loves the working class like a grandparent loves their grandchildren – though it’s no less real for that.

He despises Tony Blair and, not without a pang of sadness, comes to despise Gordon Brown too, as New Labour flounders in the absence of its Charismatic Leader and the backwash of the crash of 2007-8.  He’s not above a few “I told you so”s – and why shouldn’t he be – remarking, not for the first time in the diaries, that there’s always money for war and for The Establishment in crisis. He remains disdainful of the need to spin and compromise in the furtherance of electoral ambition – he still prefers to win the argument, rather than the majority.

In his mid-80s, he’s become more interested in his friends, his family and the little struggles that make up life at an advanced age. He glows with pride at the achievements of his (now middle-aged) children and their children, thinks often of his brother, dead at 22 in the War, and apologetically relies on the Benns to fix his computer, cook Christmas dinner, clear his gutters. Friends – glitzy and glamorous like Saffron Burrows and Natasha Kaplinsky and the less well known, but equally valued brothers ans sisters from political battles past and present – pop up for conversation and company. As ever, his loyal editor, Ruth Winstone, goes far beyond the call of duty – something for which readers too are grateful. Amongst so many friends and family, one feels, for the first time since the diaries began in 1940, that Tony needs their company more than they need his – and that he knows it.

Inevitably, his body is breaking down – though not as much as a dedicated and unrepentant smoker might expect – but, his mind betrays him only a little (the usual forgetting of names etc). He is tired often and – what a change for the man who barely slept at all in his Cabinet years – he stays in bed more than he would like (though he’s still not afraid of a 5.00am alarm for a 6.30am taxi). Slowing down – like so much else – is relative.

The time I did meet him was about five years ago. He arrived at London College of Communication alone, slightly doddery on his legs but ready to speak to the students. I had wondered what I should say on greeting him and knew that there was one thing I definitely did not want to say. I shook him by the hand and said. “Mr Benn. I have read all your diaries and I want to thank you for them. They taught me much about politics and history.” And then, almost automatically, I said what I was determined not to say.  “They also taught me about what it is to be a man.”

I’m not sure which of us was the closer to tears.

London – Paris – Rome Days Two, Three, Four, Five and Six

Published November 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet
Both hands needed to build an empire

Both hands needed to build an empire

Trains, though sharing with planes the consent to incarceration with strangers, enjoy a completely different vibe. Conversations start, flow and finish, with an understanding that suspension can come at any time. Maybe we were just lucky, but both Paris – Rome and Rome – Paris passed through happy chatting and fitful, though sufficient, sleep. I wasn’t overjoyed to share a compartment with an Italian family who filled it with half a dozen suitcases, but Jesper, Amandine and I were travelling light, so everything was stowed. Mme A was a student at the Sorbonne – very bright and very beautiful and in grave danger of giving the otherwise somewhat diffident French a good name.

Rome was very Italian, despite even more tourists than I recall. Little has changed since first I went a quarter-century ago, with a handful of exceptions. Of course, the main one is the cost of everything. Who is paying for all this kept popping into my mind, almost immediately followed by its answer – the Germans. Though I remain committed to the EU project and and (I think you have to be if so) committed to the Euro, one can’t help thinking that a devaluation of a “Southern Euro” by about 33% would line things up and probably help weaker economies export. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for crossing borders and seeing prices change with the countries as they should I suppose. But Kentucky’s dollar is the same as Manhattan’s, and that experiment has largely succeeded.

Though there are plenty of Italian bars and restaurants, fast food is more common than it was and multinational brands too. Rome still feels more “Italian” than much of the North of the country, but it’s slightly diluted these days. The food is still very good and the views on any street corner still reek of history, art and Italy’s unique showiness that pervades life. There’s a dressiness too about the people – young and old – and film star looks in every queue for every bus. And the ice cream is still the best.

What's that Diana Ross song?

What’s that Diana Ross song?

We waited for a lot of buses – something I never mind doing abroad, as one gets a feel for a city and the people and a sightseeing tour for free too. I’d recommend catching a bus some time towards sunset since, as so often the case anywhere, the slanting sun shows off the city to best advantage.

We waited longest for a bus on the Appian Way, having visited one of Rome’s many catacombs, it’s networks of subterranean burial grounds. Some chambers were decorated with frescoes from the second century AD, an astonishingly early representation of biblical stories in a style that would have appealed to Picasso. An excellent guide made the trip worth the €8, though it’s not for the claustrophobic!

Travelling is what one makes of it and never more so than when travelling through Europe by train. A certain robustness is required to deal with the delays, the proximity of others in couchette cabins and the last minute changes (Milan at 5.30am I could have done without). But you get space for bags, relaxed security and the chance to move about and chat – should you so desire. My first week of long-distance train travelling in 20 years also reminded me of why Mrs Thatcher never travelled by train. Trains go from inner city to inner city – with all that connotes good and bad when you arrive. They’re collective too – a mini-society that helps each other, mediated not by contract, but by a mutual regard for each others’ needs. And trains are reliant on a state built and maintained infrastructure that delivers far more often than not, and appears impervious to private sector models.

Do I recommend it? Well, yes and no. If you’re up to it, six days holiday can be squeezed from three nights in a hotel (with sleeper trains doing their share of meeting accommodation needs) and the costs of tickets offset by the city centre to city centre travelling. But Europe, at 90p for a Euro, is pricey, especially when a dollar can be bought for 70p or less. That said, the great cities of Europe tell us much about who we are, why we think the way we do and about the world as it was laid out by adventurers from the old imperial powers. If Hong Kong felt like visiting the future and the USA like visiting the present, Rome and Paris feel like visiting the past, but not in any negative sense. If the view can be mixed as much as magnificent in these great relics of imperialism, at least we know that we are standing on the shoulders of giants – of art, of administration and of single-minded brutality.

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